Steve Earle brings ‘Transcendental’ music to Birchmere

The iconic songman paid tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker & Grateful Dead during his set

It would be a shorter endeavor to list the artists who have not recorded a song written by the legendary Steve Earle. In fact, not only have dozens of country, folk, and rock luminaries had hits with Earle songs, they’ve also had hits with songs about Steve Earle.

It was easy to see why this man has reached legendary status among peers and fans alike at The Birchmere on Wednesday (July 20th). Steve Earle and his ever-faithful Dukes backing band opened the show with a healthy selection of Jerry Jeff Walker tunes. Earle released the album Jerry Jeff, a tribute to his late friend, teacher, and influence.

After the Walker segment, Earle dedicated most of the rest of his 29-song set to his own catalog. The list of top-shelf songs ran the gamut of emotions and styles. There was his trademark political anger (“It’s About Blood”). There was pain (“Mystery Train Part II”). There was heartbreak (“Goodbye”). There was protest (“Ben McCollough”). There were even some celtic-infused jaunts (“Dixieland” and “Galway Girl”).

And of course, there was “Copperhead Road.” A mindset standout that began with the keyboard player setting his machine to “bagpipes” and offering the famous lick, not two notes escaped the speakers before the 500-strong crowd at the sold out Birchmere roared with excitement. Ever deadpan, Earle plowed through the song with an excited aggression in both his singing and mandolin playing that made the song feel as fresh as the first time anyone had heard it.

Of course, it is that ability to immerse both himself and the listener that turned Steve Earle from songwriter to music legend. His music is at once uniquely American yet totally universal. Take, for example, “The Week of Living Dangerously.” With its strong fiddle and clear southern rock roots, it is still a number that offers a truism relatable the world over: one beer has the potential to lead to a hell of a lot of trouble.

With each number in the two hour and fourteen minute set, the crowd followed Earle wherever he wanted to go. And while he took his faithful on a journey, Earle was still self-effacing. Before the lilting “Sparkle and Shine,” he joked about writing songs for “chicks” (his words) as a teenager. “They fought over which song was about who, and I could never tell them they were all really about me!”

Dressed in a red shirt and chain necklace, looking a bit like a backwoods Santa on slimfast diet, Earle cut an unassuming figure as he and his six-piece Dukes effortlessly picked, bowed, slid, and sang through the night. The Dukes are, quite possibly, the most versatile and tightest touring band today. They pulled off a grand illusion behind him: moving effortlessly between genres. Whether southern rock, bluegrass, pure country, folk, or even some ethereal jazz rock (“Transcendental Blues” is to thank for the latter) they mastered it with a skill that takes years to hone. It takes a special kind of musician to go from shredding on a Mandolin to bearing down on Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones” without batting an eye.

There’s not much to say about Steve Earle and his music that hasn’t already been said — or sung — by others. (Looking at you, Sugarland.) Though, it must be said that a certain dimension is added to Earle’s music when seen live. That is, each number draws out the emotions and thoughts of the listener in exactly the intended manner. Such is the genius of Steve Earle.

Set List:

1. Gettin By
2. Charlie Dunn
3. Wheel
4. Gypsy Songman
5. I Makes Money But It Don’t Make Me
6. Bojangles
7. Hill Country Rain
8. Someday
9. Guitar Town
10. I Ain’t Ever Satisfied
11. Ben McCollough
12. Dixieland
13. Galway Girl
14. Mystery Train Part II
15. Copperhead Road
16. You’re The Best Lover I’ve Ever Had
17. You’re Still Standing There
18. Goodbye
19. Sparkle and Shine
20. Transcendental Blues
21. Week of Living Dangerously
22. It’s about Blood
23. The Firebreak Line
24. So You Wanna be an Outlaw
25. Fixin’ to Die


26. The Devils Right Hand
27. City of Immigrants
28. Casey Jones
29. Rag Mama Rag

Matt Bailey
Matt Bailey

Matt Bailey is podcast producer and writer located in the Northeast. Since 2013, Bailey has produced more than 160 episodes of his own online radio show, Talk For Two. In 2016 alone, he interviewed Kevin Bacon, Crystal Gayle, Bob Barker, and Gilbert Gottfried, among several other stars. As a Correspondent for The Music Universe, his focus is Broadway, country music and concert reviews.